Hacking readability for dyslexic readers

Adobe’s readability initiative is working with researchers at the University of Central Florida on an exciting exploration to help dyslexic readers more effectively read PDFs.

Cross-pollination leads to exciting discoveries. In this case, Adobe’s readability initiative and the Virtual Readability Research Lab at University of Central Florida partnered with Adobe Document Cloud’s Hack Week to hatch an exciting exploration into how we might help dyslexic readers more effectively read PDFs. And the results of their study, “Improving Reading Outcomes Using Digital Reading Rulers for Readers With & Without Dyslexia”, have just been accepted as a poster presentation to the Vision Sciences Annual Meeting in May of 2021.

Many dyslexic readers have trouble keeping their eyes on the line they are trying to read. It has long been known that providing a dyslexic reader with a ruler can keep their eyes on track and therefore help them to read more effectively. And there are electronic rulers (ReadingLine and ReaderMode.io for example) that help people track reading lines on web pages, but there are not any that help them read PDFs — where so many of us do so much of our reading.

Adobe announced our readability initiative at MAX last year — which included Liquid Mode and new reading features that give readers control over their reading formats. We also announced our sponsorship of the Virtual Reading Lab at the University of Central Florida. As part of our efforts, we are building a set of reading research tools, previously missing from the discipline, that allow researchers to quickly do field studies online with any number of research populations.

Adobe Document Cloud has a rich heritage of innovation. We devote a week a year to a Hack Week event where Adobe employees have complete freedom to develop a new idea, create a proof of concept, or implement a new procedure for Document Cloud that they wouldn’t be able to do in their “day job”. For example, the Reading Controls in Liquid Mode that give users the ability to adjust font size and spacing were first implemented during Hack Week in 2017. We then used the hack to do our original classroom testing to prove the efficacy of customized reading.

In November, Aleena Watson, a member of our core technologies technical staff, took advantage of Hack Week to hack her passion project — to explore the effectiveness of various types of digital reading rulers that could be implemented in Acrobat. To do this, she turned to the Virtual Readability Research team and their tools to field a highlighter study. Watson worked with Shaun Wallace, a Ph.D. candidate at Brown University and Adobe research intern. Using our online testing harness (a web-based simulator) that Wallace built for the Virtual Reading Lab, and the sample reading passages the lab has created, Watson and Wallace were able to create 3 styles of highlighter plus mouse as pointer and test them with dyslexic and non-dyslexic readers. The three styles tested are shown below.

Researchers tested with 35 crowd-sourced subjects: 19 self-identified as dyslexic readers and 26 identified as non-dyslexic readers.

Quick results showed:

Non-dyslexic readers:

Gained 29 words-per-minute (WPM) using the gray bar and gained 36 WPM using the mouse to track their reading. The gray bar was designed by non-dyslexic designers.

Dyslexic readers:

Most read fastest using the underline style, gaining 23 WPM. Some dyslexic readers read 23 WPM slower using the lightbox style, but those dyslexic readers who benefitted from the lightbox read 111 WPM faster. Both the lightbox and the underline styles of highlighting were designed by dyslexic designers.

Initial takeaways by this study’s authors:

This is more than just proving the value of a line highlighter for dyslexics — it is a great example of inclusive design — where designing with an eye to individual needs helps everyone — in this case the dyslexic as well as the non-dyslexic reader.

Most importantly, mixing it up — partnering researchers, engineers, stakeholders to attack a problem — leads to cool new discoveries. Watson, Wallace, and others on our research team plan to continue their research with a larger testing population and are writing one or more formal research papers to present their findings to the larger research community.

Take the survey to see which type of ruler helps you improve readability.

Aleena Watson

Shaun Wallace

Special thanks to the entire team of Document Cloud Hack Team Engineers: Aishwarya Iyer, Anatole Matveief, Dana Murphy, Michael Burke, Shawn Gaither, Carl Dockhorn, Sean Merrigan and Leena Tahilramani.